Category Archives: Death

Death as Inspiration


Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman,

Larchmont Temple

In shtetl days, and long before, when someone died, most often with generations gathered, [and seldom at what we’d call a ripe old age,] no matter the circumstances, they were never left alone.

From the recital of Psalms to the ritual washing of the body to the burial itself, we as Jews would accompany our dead to their final resting place.

But it went far beyond the Jews…

Historically, from early Medieval times, in our desire to tap into death as a life-force, we built churches & temples atop the tombs of the departed.

And the greater the life, the tighter our grip in death…

We still couldn’t leave them alone.

When Galileo was exhumed in 1737 to transfer his tomb, several fingers, a tooth, some even say a vertebra were plucked as revered relics. Descartes skull was stolen before he could be reburied in France. Alexander the Great’s mummy was regularly kissed by Roman emperors on their way to battle. Lest you think, “so not Jewish”…Remember that Israel carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt to pave their way to freedom.

Others may have gone a bit too far…

The Victorians made lockets from the hair of dead loved ones; The Romantics kept the hearts of their greatest poets as cherished vestige. The widow of the writer/adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh kept his embalmed head, after he was executed, in a prized case in the living room.

Macabre—morose—meshug?…Maybe, not at all. Bess Lovejoy, author of the book Rest In Pieces puts the human preoccupation in perspective:

“Taken as signs of their times, displaying an intimacy with the dead,… its possible that ages past actually show a healthier relationship with death. Despite advances that have removed death as a constant presence in our lives, it remains inevitable, and many of us are ill-prepared when it comes.” [NY Times, Op Ed, 10.28.12]

With the proverbial Book of Life still open before us, our consideration this night is much more than metaphor…

What is this day’s implicit [ironic] message?

HOW we deal with death: the reality that life is filled with loss, that crazy things happen every day, far beyond our understanding— certainly beyond our control, is the framework for how we deal with life. Even more pointedly; the way we face the prospect of that earthly end brings life perspective that may alter the outlook we bring to each new day.

Though most days we assume otherwise, we are not invincible. The burdens we carry, the brokenness we bear, can leave us with a sense of life-despair that is self-defeating.  Yet that is not the sensibility these sacred days are meant to convey! “Repent one day before your death,” R’ Joshua instructs his students.

Note—the day before!…Thus the students rightly reply:

“But how do you know what day that day will be?”

And the rabbi’s wise retort: “So make it today!”

But most of us don’t…WHY?

Because it’s easier to go through life denying death, thinking it has someone else’s name on it… that the magical prayer we utter daily during our morning shower or before falling to sleep is our Heavenly protection, as if we’ve got God covered in some under the table pay-off racket. Then we arrive at these Yamim Nora’im—literally “Dreaded Days” This Atonement Day in particular, and our worst fears are confirmed.

“B’Rosh Hashana Yikateyvun—On RH it is written; U’v’Yom Tsom Kippur Yecheteymun—On YK it is sealed… How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be. Who shall live and who shall die. Who is the fullness of years; who before her time?”

Death happens, whether we like it or not, and seldom in accord with our schedules.

Psychiatrist Mark Epstein speaks the sentiment of where we all now stand:

“I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death, and its cousins—old age, illness, accidents, hang over us all. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates to a great degree, and despite scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.” [N.Y. Times, Op-Ed, 8.4.13]

Like that warning label on the underside of the couch: “Do not remover except under the penalty of federal law,” Comes this counterintuitive life-warning label: “CAUTION: Death’s immanence may be beneficial to your life.”

What most of us regard as a dreaded fear—embracing life’s end, can be the ultimate teacher in helping us learn what it means to be alive.

WHAT is life? …All depends on whom you ask.

A recent feature piece in Bostonia [my BU Alumni magazine] Polled a panel of academics, each sharing a unique response.

The biologist viewed life through the lens of chemical/physiological processes giving rise to living cells about 4 billion years ago. The astrophysicist, describing human beings as “walking bags of salt water with organic molecules inside,” understood the universe as chemical systems which all store and extract energy to stay alive. The neuropsychologist suggested a life-death continuum whose hard line will be blurred with advances in cryogenics and cloning.

Only the philosopher, with Aristotle as his muse, Approached the question by considering what it is that keeps us alive. IF we are more than the sum of our elements, something even more significant than science is required. Aristotle called that animating life-energy: Psuche—the breath of life; What some would call “soul.” For Aristotle, inseparable from the body in life, yet still transcending the temporal, even when we die, a life-force lives on.

These days summon us to CHOOSE LIFE, Even at times when that choice seems not to be an option.

Yet, when death’s inevitability looms large, we can still face it as life’s ultimate teacher. It all depends on how we respond…

In her watershed work On Death & Dying, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined a 5-staged model of grief that brought the conversation, back then, out of the closet, and eventually normalized our post-mortem mourning response.

Problem is, in radically altering the ways we react to loss, she constructed a model which has, for better or worse, become the “mourning stages standard.”


Yet Kubler-Ross’ five pronged process can be misleading, because one person’s stage can be another’s passing phase.

And since mourning has no time-table, her presumed progression does not govern our grief.

Dr. Erica Brown, Scholar-in-Residence for UJA-Federation in D.C., Author of the powerfully poignant new book, Happier Endings, takes even greater issue with Kubler-Ross’ classic formulation.

“My problem with her ladder of loss is that it is missing its most important rung. The last, most potent stage within the framework of loss is not “Acceptance,” It is INSPIRATION…I humbly believe Kubler-Ross missed something in her categorization that may be the key to the fine art of “dying well”…” [Happier Endings, pgs 6-7]

In Brown’s reframing, it is our acknowledgement of how unprepared we are to deal with death that opens up the possibility of this final transformative phase; [And] What remains as a result is the enduring gift of a love stronger than death.  Consider three very different responses along the life journey, each bringing us the “Inspiration” of facing death yet still “choosing life.”

INSPIRATION I…April 15, 2013

I was walking into the doctor’s office waiting room as I saw everyone glued to a TV newscast in the corner.  It was just before 4PM, and reports coming in were still sketchy.  What they knew was that 2 blasts had gone off, one right near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And what they saw was a horror:

body parts strewn onto the street—human carnage, shattered windows sending broken glass flying all over Copley Square; spectators running every which way—runners down or stopped in their tracks.

“Chaos,” the older gentleman next to me in the waiting room whispered.  But much as those two Chechnyan brothers who turned out to be backpacking terrorists had hoped—it wasn’t.

Marathon volunteers sprang into action, becoming runners themselves, Shuttling the injured to a constant stream of ambulances, or nearby hospitals.

Mass General’s trauma head, Dr. Peter Fagenholz said that several amputations were necessary, reporting 18 in critical condition with a total of almost 170 treated….The city—physically—was torn apart.

So what does Boston do?…Facing death, senseless acts of terror, Boston bands together—they reach…resolutely, for life.

Boston Police—State Police—the FBI—the US Military; The cooperation to catch the killers is unprecedented.

And though, a few days in, as Gov. Duval Patrick urges residents to stay inside, Boston Commons and the downtown district looking like a ghost town, [never mind that the Sox postponed their day game] as the manhunt zooms in on Franklin Street in Watertown, the nation watches SWAT teams move from door to door, finally cornering the surviving suspect in a backyard boat.

And as the capture is caught on TV for all to see, the real victory scene is in watching the residents of Watertown, Pouring into the streets, American flags in hand…

And with each passing armored vehicle, or fire truck, or police cruiser, bursts of applause and cheers erupt…Impromptu block-parties spring up, as neighborhoods feed anyone in uniform.

Folks meet one another in the street, and just hug; so grateful to have their streets back—thankful for the life they share.

The Marathon bombings sought to destroy the Patriot’s Day spirit, Yet their hateful terror resulted in just the reverse,

Spanning a series of emotional moments over the next week or so, when, in memory of the four victims, little 8-year old Martin’s smile flashing on the giant screen at Fenway, David Ortiz of the Red Sox took back Beantown with a most fitting expletive exclamation! “This is our…town!”

And the life-spirit lingers…4 months later, As Gabe and I sat near the Pesky Pole in right field for a Sox game in late July, everyone was wearing hats & jerseys with the slogan turned spiritual truth: BOSTON STRONG. When, between innings, I ran over to the Fenway gift shop, the clerk saw my disappointment that they were all sold out.

“I so wanted to wear Boston Strong back in New York.”

His response said more than he knew: “Listen bud, we wear the words right here [pronounced hee-yah]. ” Inspiration in the face of death, by reaching out to hold one another up; by seeing beyond the hate to all that makes us humanly connected. Journalist Charles McGrath who, like me, grew up watching the Marathon, reflects on the core of that life-strength:

“Boston’s is a toughness born, in part from a history of neighborhood clannishness, class resentment and an attitude that people here take care of their own, because you can’t trust anyone else to!…But the Marathon was our antidote to that kind of isolation, linking the city, its neighborhoods and suburbs together like beads on a single string.” [New York Times, 4.21.13]

Our Inspiration comes from an 8-year old boy, inexplicably killed, His life cut terribly short, but his heart still reminding us why we’re here…

As the sign Martin Richard painted in school read just the week before: “No more hurting people.” His life spirit lives on in that hope.


INSPIRATION II… January 4, 2013… 5:12 in the afternoon

My mother died the way she lived, almost without giving it a second thought. And with a pledge to tomorrow that was as unwarranted, As it was unwavering.

Having had more than her share of life-tsoris: A marriage to my dad, a man she deeply loved, but could not quite figure out how to live with, ending in divorce after just over 20 years, compelling her—a 45 year-old woman who didn’t even have a driver’s license, to claim her independence, never mind having to earn a living to pay rent…  All the while, right around that time, becoming the primary caretaker for her aging parents who lived half an hour away.

Reason to feel a heaviness of heart might have weighed her down…

But Leona Sirkman was resilient, almost joyous, Delighting in what she had—the grandkids up the street she so loved, and the 4 far-away ones in Larchmont…

Singing in 2 choral societies to entertain the elderly. And, despite battling melanoma over the course of 5 years, undaunted, still meeting her girlfriends at the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Wendy’s every Wednesday…If you tried to call her after 9AM, too late; Mom was already out and about on her daily errands.

Even with the health concerns of post-cancer treatment this past year, Mom was here to celebrate my D.D. last May, and was looking forward to what I promised would be an 85th As I often joked, “Ma, that’s Honolulu, one way…”

So when my sister called the day after our mother’s 81st,

“Mom wasn’t right, so I took her to Mass General.

They’ve been doing tests all day… Jeff, you won’t believe it.”


“She has brain tumors…malignant.”

“Seriously?…After all this!?”… My sister Rhonda explained the diagnosis

and the surgeon’s suggestions. “Where’s Mom?”

“They put her in a room. She’s right here…”

“Mom, it’s me, your favorite son.” That laugh was her all right.

“So Mom, what do you want to do?”

“Well Jeffrey, it’s like this: If I want to live, I have to let them try and operate.

What other choice do I have?”

“Mom, you could just enjoy whatever time is yours…and…”

birthday trip for her to Hawaii,


“What, and sit around waiting? No, Jeffrey, I want to live.

Let the doctors try; I’m not afraid…”

“OK Mom….If that’s what you want to do….I love you.

See you tomorrow at Mass General.”

“Love you too honey. Drive careful…”

My mother was so cautious in life. She taught me, as a kid, to stay clear of stray dogs and be wary of strangers. She was apprehensive of new

technology and was never one to take undue risk…

But she was fearless in death. Because she would not live, to her, what could be a highly compromised existence…knowing how full her days were with people/places she loved, given the option, grateful alone at the possibility, Leona Sirkman chose life.

…Mom never opened her eyes again; Never fully regained brain function or consciousness. The body withered, days in Neuro ICU…her face sunken, as we sat around her and told stories of a life gone-by…

Mom had already left us…Yet, we knew, lying there amidst the medical machinery as any hope of life faded from view, she never for a moment stopped loving us…

So as we, her kids & grandkids gathered, finally watched her breathe her last— indomitable spirit, she was still choosing life….



I have never met anyone to whom time matters more than my wife.

On our third date, after having hung out in her backyard pool, in her sitting room, our lips locked pretty passionately, her eyes suddenly popped open with a question:

“How long before we can have babies?”

Flabbergasted, but appreciating what her fast-track trajectory meant for our relationship, I suggested it would be a while, and we both broke into laughter.

Susan was 16 ½ and I 17 at the time. Fast forward 38+ years together later, and we calculate by a different clock.

Truth is, time takes on added significance when we are reminded we are mortal, and there’s no reminder quite like cancer.

Confronting life-threatening illness can weigh heavily on many. For some, it is paralyzing, impeding life’s forward progress.

The days pass and you wake up to each new morning frozen by the unchanging reality: it’s still there. Others get so wrapped up in the medical management of disease that life itself becomes secondary.

Some face the very thought of it with disbelief, as famed author William Saroyan once commented: “Everybody’s got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

So we cope by running the other way, as if we can…. Still others face the prospect of sickness with fear.  The uncertainty of what the future holds, of not being here to watch generations unfold, of meeting our final end before they, or we, are ready.

We tremble at the thought. It’s a devastating blow. We dwell…in the dying. Then there are uniquely inspired souls, who face their illness, even the possibility of dying, by emphatically living.  They refuse to let treatments, or the accompanying ill-effects, limit them.

And with a determination to greet each new day and fill it with purpose, disease becomes secondary. Fearlessly facing life, choosing it over death, no moment is meaningless, and no encounter insignificant.

Mark Twain once mused: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

“The capacity to live in the present and maximize it softens the scare of not existing at all. If we really feared death,” Dr. Erica Brown intuits, “we would make sure to get it all in quickly before time runs out. The gift of death is that we don’t know when it is, so we spend each day in exceptional states of love, generosity and sanctity because time matters so much.” [Happier Endings, Dr. Erica Brown, pg. 161]

The life-expectancy calculator [originated, as you might guess, by life-insurance brokers] is an easy-to-download app which, in exchange for inputting answers to all kinds of personal questions…

[My favorite: Of the 10 items on the stress list, _____ of them happened to me in the past 12 months?…….I was 9 out of 10…OY]

As you input your answers the calculator generates your life-span projection. Some sites even provide an added feature: a personal mortality stop-watch to start the countdown as soon as you click “OK.” [Brown, pg. 151]

Of course, it is not OK…depressing, if not morose, on many counts. Yet for a person in the throes of chronic/terminal illness, alongside the morning alarm, the mortality clock flashes…

Today of all days we are well aware, that clock ticks for us all. Yet it’s all a matter of how you tell time….

For those of you who’ve been there, or who are there; or those caregivers close by, you understand:

It is not about counting the days, but approaching our time with an intentionality of presence that makes each day count.

Why is it that when someone on the street, could be an acquaintance, a congregant, even a perfect stranger, asks a question, my wife does not simply answer, she takes the time to have a conversation, to thoughtfully, with her whole being, respond?… Same reason, if she’s not shepherding a friend through a family conundrum, or advising a fellow traveler in treatment, Susan is more often than not, knitting. Not merely a hobby, mind you; some pleasant way to pass the time.

Susan’s response to treatment, approaching three years ago when it started, was to do something that kept her hands busy and somehow helped others.

Thus Neckandy—her homespun start-up was born:

Especially designed handcrafted scarves, in willy-nilly, beautiful blends in exchange for your donation to MSK of $150. [or more if you’d like] Specifically earmarked to help fund the liaison her oncologist, Dr. David Kelsen, has forged with the Weitzman Institute in Israel.

No—this is not a YK Tsedakah solicitation. [Though, if you’re interested, shoot her an email]

Susan’s got a good half-dozen on back-order… But when her craft creations had generated over $10,000., gaining her an invite to a special donors-reception back in May, it was beyond gratifying.

Unfortunately, treatment persists—third time around… Fortunately, with current chemo effective, things are heading in the right direction.

Either way—there’s no denying, it’s a tough road.

Yet, because Susan fills her time, as she always has, with determined devotion to helping others…to being a life-force for good to be reckoned with; because she is no less demanding of those closest to be better, to do right, to reach higher….than she was when we were in high school…

With outreaching honesty and fervent sincerity of heart, my wife, I call her Dolly, affirms her life purpose and, inspires us with her impassioned presence every day.

Just being with her, time matters more….

DEATH…an Inspiration?… Heschel once said that in the presence of death there is but “silence & awe.” [Moral Grandeur, pg.366]

Silence, because words fail in the face of life-loss. Any Rabbi or Cantor who tries to explain when someone dies falls inevitably short.

What we must offer is the reverence of acknowledging there are no words…

Just being there, presence, is what matters most…

And Awe, because, as the Sages taught:

“Life and death are separated by a very thin veil.”

The line between this world and the next, between what we experience as our earthly existence and the soul’s flight to what may await, that veil is paper thin. On a night like tonight, when generations mystically merge and we are but little lower than the angels, the veil seems virtually transparent….

Yes, Death, even the horrendous loss we may have gone through;

Even the tragic taking of lives before their time, or the saga of protracted illness…

Death can be an inspiration…

The Latin source reveals the secret: In-Spirarie—To take in breath!

For what is it that transcends the end, as Aristotle suggested,

P’suche—the breath of life…The breath that comes from Beyond,

From a “breathing in of life” that connects our most elemental act,

every moment—every day, every breath, to the Creator Herself….

Holy One—Breath of all Life, Hope beyond all we know & see…

In this hour when life & death hangs in the balance, grant us strength to hold one another up in the face of loss; empower our resolve to transcend illness by reaching beyond it to help others; give us the courage to embrace the life we are given, filling it with such love, such endlessly caring heart, such spirited celebration of the everyday, such inspiration, that even in the face of death, we will still be choosing life….

With hopes for a sacred seal in the Book of Life for us all…

Ken Yehi Ratson…

So May it Be God’s Will: AMEN

Sex, Death and Taxes: What Does Religion Say? Death

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Stanford University

University Public Worship

27 July 2008/24 Tammuz 5768

Sex, Death and Taxes:  What Does Religion Say?


(Genesis 23,1-20; Leviticus, 10,1-3)

            It was a decision that could only bring agony.  Two weeks ago, following much soul-searching and national discussion, Israel participated in a prisoner exchange. In exchange for the bodies of two young reservists, Sergeant First Class Ehud Goldwasser and Staff Sergeant Eldad Regev, kidnapped by Hezbollah two years ago, Israel released five prisoners.  One of them was a reviled terrorist who had killed four policemen, before brutally murdering a young father and his four-year old daughter. Indeed, Hezbollah boasted that they had captured the two Israelis soldiers with this very trade in their sights.  Predictably, Hezbollah greeted the released prisoners with a heroes’ welcome, displaying all the trappings of triumph[1]. Israelis were overcome with mourning. Hezbollah did not confirm their deaths prior to the handoff.  But Israelis understood, from the injuries they sustained upon capture, that it was unlikely that they were alive.  In fact, they had already been declared dead in Israel. Everyone grasped what was likely to, and did ultimately transpire in the swap. Terrorists for soldiers.  Life for death.  Why would Israel agree to such a Faustian bargain, one that could only embolden further brutality? What could balance those scales?  Only a longstanding promise to honor the service of their citizenry, only an abiding adherence to the religious obligation to honor the dead could explain or justify this painful decision.  For the Israeli Defense Forces, for Israel as a nation, for Jews as a people, burying and mourning the dead is a sacred obligation, and while the cost of doing so, in this case, was very dear, many voices cried out that the soul of the country was at stake in keeping faith with this sacred obligation.

Jewish tradition is explicit about kvod hamet, honoring the dead, and one of the ways that honor takes place is through an appropriate burial.  Proper burials have been a concern of the Jewish people as far back as the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Bible.  In order to insure a proper burial for his wife Sarah, the stranger and sojourner Abraham negotiated with the Hittites for the Cave of Machpelah.  The townspeople magnanimously offered a resting place for Abraham to bury Sarah; there was no need to pay for the property. But Abraham insisted that he wanted to pay for it—and pay for it, he did, at top dollar.  He wanted it to be properly deeded in perpetuity.  He wanted it to be undeniable that a place of eternal rest would indeed, be eternal.  He wanted to be certain that, although Abraham and Sarah wandered for much of their lives, they would never be uprooted in death.

Abraham recognized the power of a resting place. Abraham knew that how and where he and Sarah were buried conveys volumes about who they were and what they valued. So it is for us as well.  In her book, The American Resting Place, Marilyn Yalom provides, through our resting places, stories about who we are as Americans and what we value.  She tells that country folk from Mississippi still have the habit of asking newcomers, “Where do you bury?”  That simple question contains a host of others about identity—Where do you come from?  Who are your kin?  Where do you call home?[2]

Where do you come from?  Who are your kin?  Where do you call home?  What do you value?  How do you hope to be remembered?  Death and burial are the Rorschach blots of our lives, and of what we want to be revealed about ourselves.  Sometimes what they convey gives us pause.  Do you know about Gina Gray and the Arlington National Cemetery?   Arlington itself is one of the most evocative icons of our national identity—the name alone conjures humble patriotism and pride, the magnitude and majesty of heroism, the selfless “last full measure of devotion”.  But along with those lofty ideals, for Gina Gray, Arlington now also evokes politics and public opinion, manipulation and meting out access.  Gina Gray asserts that last month she was fired from her position as Public Affairs Director at Arlington because she challenged new media restrictions which had been imposed on the funerals of the Iraq war dead, even when the families of the fallen granted permission for the coverage.  Previously, when families agreed, the media had been permitted to be stationed close enough to hear the prayers and eulogies and to film the presentation of the folded flag to the next of kin.  But under the new rules, the media was placed fifty yards away, too far to hear or to photograph the funerals.[3]  A grieving family disturbed by the new rules said that their entire town mourned the loss of their native son, but they could not all travel to Arlington.  Having the funeral covered by the media enabled their whole community to be present at the funeral. But such coverage also reminds a distracted nation of an unpopular war whose costs have been all too invisible for many of us.  Reminiscent of the prohibition against filming and photographing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers returning for burial, those who imposed the new restrictions are loath to call attention to the cost of that war.  They prefer the antiseptic and the invisible.

While this particular decision may have been about the dissonance between the reality of war and the illusion of peace, Yalom tells us that the impulse to create distance between life and death is not a new one in America.  Early burial places were in the center of the city. Parishioners walked through the burial markers in the churchyard on their way to worship.  But by the turn of the nineteenth century, people began to believe that city burial grounds were a source of contamination. They dug up bones and moved them to new burial sites on the outskirts of the city[4]. In the past, relatives and friends lovingly prepared the body for burial in family parlors as a final act of kindness–until the inception of the funeral industry, when undertakers began to use chemicals and cosmetics to prepare the body to rest in expensive and ornate coffins. The distancing and estrangement from death that began with moving burial places out of sight continued through the twentieth century.  With the development of Forest Lawn, perhaps the best-known burial place in America, the denial of death reached its apex. In Forest Lawn, flat bronze plaques and replicas of famous statues dot the sweeping landscape. There, the “Disneyland of Death” was born.  In the shadow of Hollywood, “death was represented as a transition to a sunny sphere where one awoke amid angels and long-departed family members”[5]­ Death at Forest Lawn was the ultimate fantasy experience.  The philosophy of Forest Lawn’s founder Hubert Eaton is emblazoned on a huge stone wall tablet, “I believe in a happy eternal life…I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness.  It is to be filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, in contrast to traditional cemeteries containing misshapen monuments and other customary signs of earthly death.”[6]

While most of us probably find Eaton’s airbrushed view of death a bit much, we nevertheless assume a fair amount of distance from death in our daily lives.  Even our language reflects this distance.  We speak of “passing away” rather than dying.  We commemorate those we have lost by gathering for “celebrations of life” rather than for funerals.  Undertakers are now morticians.  Ashes are “cremains”.  And if our language keeps death at arm’s length, how do we offer our own presence for those who are grieving?  More and more, we don’t know how to comfort mourners.  We don’t know what to say, what to bring, how to act.  We expect people to move on, to go back to work, to return to normalcy.  We want them to shield us from their deep sorrow. And when we are the mourners, we chastise ourselves for not getting over our losses more quickly, for not getting on with the program of our overscheduled lives.  After all, we don’t have time to grieve.

When my closest friend was a psychology graduate student, she sustained a tragic loss.  Her foster son–a tough, funny, Laotian refugee who had experienced too much suffering and sorrow in his young life, committed suicide. His death was as far from the clean, sunshine fantasy of Forest Lawn as one could imagine. Every decision was messy.   He had been raised a Buddhist, but he attended in a fundamentalist Christian church.  My friend is a secular Christian, married to a secular Jew. Where and with what rituals could they honor him.  What did Buddhism say about cremation? Could they donate his organs? Where should they bury him? Let alone the questions of how to explain his untimely death to their young daughter.  My friend’s classmates in the psychology program steered clear of her.   They didn’t know what to say, or how to help.  They were made intensely uneasy by the complexity and tragedy of this death.  And if psychology students, studying how to be a helping professional, couldn’t handle grief, how much the more so people with less training and willingness to care for others?

If psychology and its proponents do not always help us with diminishing the distance between death and life, then what about religion—the place where the cycle of life is made the most explicit? Dr. Michael Mendiola is a professor of Christian Ethics at the Graduate Theological Union and a former Catholic priest.  He describes how pervasive is the distancing from death, even within the Christian Church.  Dr. Mendiola teaches that within the Christian story there is a persistent and ambivalent tension.  On the one hand, human sadness and loss is present at death—the loss of self, agency and the world, the loss of community and even, potentially, the loss of God.  All of these are so often experienced in the face of death.  But on the other hand, Christians affirm a theology of resurrection, of death transformed, symbolizing the eternality of life and the defeat of death[7].

Dr. Mendiola argues that death stigmatizes; and because it makes us uncomfortable, we linger over it as little as possible.  He quotes the strong words of Christian ethicist William May in his essay, “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience”. “The attempt to cover up death in the funeral service is an unmitigated disaster for the church, preceded and prepared for by the church’s failure to reckon with death in its own preaching and pastoral life.  Many persons have said that they have never heard their minister take up frontally in a sermon the question of their own dying.  This state of affairs once again, is not entirely the fault of the professional.  People tend to expect from the church service an hour’s relief from the demons that plague them in the course of the week.  In this atmosphere sermons on death would seem intrusive and unsettling.   Better to avoid them and protect this hour from everything that jangles the nerves—even though the service comes to an end and the demons must be faced once again on Monday, fully intact, unexorcized and screeching.  The melancholic effect of this arrangement is that the church offers a temporary sanctuary, a momentary respite, from one’s secret apprehensions about death, but inevitably they take over once again, without so much as a candid word of comfort intervening.”[8]

This absence, this silence can be found in the bible as well. In today’s Leviticus text we read of the death of Aaron’s sons. The Bible notes that when Aaron receivedword of his sons’ death, “Vayidom Aharon”, “And Aaron was silent.” This silence speaks to the enormity of death.  In the face of losing two sons in the same moment, no words of theology can comfort; no explanation can provide solace.  But if Dr. Mendiola and Dr. May are correct, Aaron’s silence speaks as well, to a radical break in communication, to the utter loneliness that accompanies death. “There but for fortune” we think, and too often, it causes us to turn away, to distance ourselves from tragedy. With our fear of death comes the presence of isolation, the loss of words as a means to connect.  Silence begets isolation, and isolation, so often, begets enduring distress.

I see this in the student grief and bereavement group that I lead together with Counseling and Psychological Services and the Residence Deans.  This group is so important to the students because in most of their lives here at Stanford, about grief and mourning, they experience only silence.  That they mourn is a terrible and isolating secret.  There are so few of their contemporaries who carry the burden of being mourners, of knowing loss in their young lives.  The students are uncertain when to reveal to a potential friend that a parent has died.  They struggle with how to answer when a dorm-mate innocently asks how many siblings they have.  The reality of loss that so pervades their lives is invisible to others.  In their day-to-day lives, they weary of explaining who they are.  Vayidom Aharon.  And so, like Aaron, they are silent.

If we are to tell our secrets, if we are to break our silence, if we are to bridge the distance, if we are to embrace death as the part of life that will eventually come to us all, then we must begin to seek models of harmony between life and death.

We lost such a model this week, when Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch succumbed to cancer.  Professor Pausch gave a poignant “last lecture” a few months after receiving his fatal prognosis.  That lecture, viewed around the world by millions on YouTube and turned into a book that has remained on the best-seller list since its publication, inspired millions.  He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time, and one of three “persons of the year” last year by ABC.[9]  He received this recognition because he broke the silence—and by doing so, he embodied how to live with wonder and joy. He spoke directly yet simply of the opportunities of life even as he refused to exile death.

Marilyn Yalom and her photographer son Reid journeyed from South Carolina to Hawaii, from Chicago to New Orleans, describing and depicting the “tombstones we live by”[10] But through their travels, they singled out one particular cemetery that moved them profoundly.  This burial place was in the Amish country in Pennsylvania, in a field enclosed by a whitewashed wooden fence, filled with evenly spaced, carefully crafted tombstones.  The same family names, found on similar stone after stone spoke of continuity–a community burying their dead in the same hallowed ground generation after generation.  The tranquility of the burial ground harmonized with the pastoral surroundings.  Yalom writes, “Here, a two-acre rectangle reserved for the dead was part and parcel of the countryside, a familiar setting for those who had spent their lives laboring in the fields and preparing the fruits of the earth.  The only sounds we could hear were the clop-clops of an occasional horse and buggy.  Such was the stillness of the scene that I imagined skeletons underground stirring to the vibration of the passing carriages.”[11] This deep silence that Yalom describes was borne not of dread, distance or discontinuity; rather it was a companionable silence, the silence of familiarity, acceptance and respect. Death here is not feared, but recognized as part and parcel of life. The dead were their neighbors.  Indeed, their living takes place in close proximity to the dead.  In the homes in the Amish countryside, there is a room to lay out the bodies of the dead, and doors wide enough for pallbearers to carry coffins in and out.  Local carpenters construct the coffins.  Friends and neighbors dig the graves.[12]

While we, busy at Stanford might find this harmony difficult to replicate, what we can take from Pausch’s last lecture and from that quiet burial place is the understanding that keeping death at a distance does little to enrich our lives.  Indeed, when we refuse to exile death, we come closer to embracing life.

As we reflect upon death and resting places, let us remember that the life we find so priceless grows yet more imperishable when we bridge the distance between life and death.  Let us break the silence of Aaron even as we absorb the silence pervading places of eternal rest.  Let us find comfort—and inspiration—in our own awareness of death and in our own celebration of the richness of life.  Amen

[1] New York Times, Wednesday, July 16, 2008 and Thursday, July 17, 2008

[3] Washington Post, Thursday, July 10, 2008, and Monday, July 14, 2008

[4] Yalom, p. 43ff

[5] Yalom, p. 225

[6] Yalom, p. 225

[7] Dr. Michael Mendiola, Panel discussion on “Death in Different Traditions”, Pacific School of Religion, April 2003

[8] “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience”, William F. May, On Moral Medicine, Stephen E Lammers and Allen Verhey (eds) Eerdmans 1987/repr 1989

[9] New York Times, July 26, 2008

[10] Yalom, xi

[11] Yalom, p. 106

[12] Yalom, p. 107

This is My Very Last Sermon

Rabbi Sydney

Mintz Yom Kippur 5772

Congregation Emanu-El

This is my very last sermon. It could be. I don’t know. This is your last Yom Kippur. It might be. You don’t know. It is possible that we will not be here next year. Are you ready? Is your house in order?
Yom Kippur is the most awesome day of the entire year because it is the dress rehearsal for your own death. Yom Kippur is Yom Ha-mitah-the day of death. We are emptied, without our creature comforts to remind us of life: no food, no drink, no sex, no perfume, no comfortable leather shoes. We even wear white, a kittel, a shroud, which says: This is what I will wear when I die.

So, what about death? Most of us deal with death through either denial or fear! Even when Rav Nahman was dying, the Talmud teaches that he begged Rava to implore the angel of death not to torment him. Rava replied, “But, Master, are you not esteemed enough to ask him yourself?” Rav Nahman considered this for a moment, and then pondered aloud, “Who is esteemed, who is regarded, who is distinguished in the face of Death Himself?” Then, after he died, Rav Nahman appeared to Rava in a dream. “Master, did you suffer any pain?” Rava asked. Rav Nahman replied, “Almost none. Still, if the Holy One were to say to me, ‘Go back to that world,’ I would not consent, the fear of death being so great.”
The fear of death.

In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford University. He said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in Life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Steve Jobs was right. No one wants to die and in reality no one wants to talk about his or her own death. Yet, we think about death all of the time. Both life and death are a part of our daily lives. So, how can Yom Kippur help us to prepare for death? Just think about the wisdom in taking a day every year to confront death, to contemplate it, to face it, so that when we arrive there it is not as scary, unfamiliar or shocking.

The central prayer of these Awesome days, the U’Netaneh Tokef is blatant in its theology. The great shofar is sounded and whether it is in a blast or a still small voice, we all hear the same thing-we are here to reckon with the end. Whether it is in our face as we read through the obituaries-Who in old age? Or, when we see an ambulance at the scene of a car crash-who by accident? Or, watching a documentary about the drought in the horn of Africa-who by thirst? Or, waiting for the results of a blood test or a biopsy-who by sickness?

The U’Netaneh Tokef teaches us that God writes us in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. But, three things can temper, mitigate or even change this severe decree. They are Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah. Teshuvah-the act of reflection and repentance, Tefillah-the prayers of your heart and Tzedakah-the act of creating justice in our world. Doing these three things can transform your death into life everlasting for those who come after you.

The U’Netaneh Tokef makes it clear that we have no control over when or why or how we will die. That is truly only in God’s hands. But, doing these things doesn’t change death. The severe decree is not death, but what of you lives on after you are gone. You have the choice: your death can be a blessing or it can be a curse. In the Yom Kippur Torah portion, God says: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.” Choosing how we live now will affect how we will live on after we die.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last words should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace and gratitude. We have been given so much. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the meaning of dying: to give one’s whole self away. For the pious person, it is a privilege to die.”

Jewish traditions around death and burial and mourning are so wise. If you have the opportunity to partake in them, to engage in them, to let them be your guide, going through the inevitability of loss is a much different experience. As your Rabbi, I have buried many, many people. I have stood with you to bury your parents, your spouses, your siblings and even your children. I am there in the hospital room when death arrives, I am there at the cemetery as you say goodbye and shovel earth onto the casket or scatter ashes in the wind. And I am there with you at home for shiva. This year I buried three children under two years old. I have lived in your grief. I have passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you. I have learned a great deal about death from you and I have something to tell you. Death is as natural as birth. If we can understand death not as a terrible negating disappearance or abandonment, but as a homecoming, we can pass ourselves and our legacies on in a healthy and righteous way. I have seen the profound difference it makes in the grieving process when someone dies and their house is in order and when someone dies and their house is a mess. I have the profound blessing to witness the fabric of your lives and I am there when families are strengthened by our tradition or their life unravels without it.

Consider these two experiences:
Judy was 81 when she died. She was still living in the four-bedroom home on the Peninsula, where she and her husband Paul had raised their children. In the 20 years since Paul had died, she had not revisited their will, nor had she discussed her end of life plans with anyone. Her children assumed she wanted to be buried next to their Dad, but her daughter was insisting on cremation. Her children had turned the house upside down looking for her documents, bank statements and bills. Anger seeped out of wounds from the past. Her daughter could only talk of the number of boxes it would take to pack everything and where they would donate it before they sold the house. Her grandson Jake took me aside and cried because he felt that no one was honoring her memory-they could only fight because no one knew what else to do. Judy’s shiva was cold, short and lifeless. People stayed for only a brief amount of time. I asked her son why he had never talked to his mom about what she wanted. He told me that she never brought it up and that he never had the time.

Jeremy had been diagnosed with Lymphoma when he was 68 years old. After his diagnosis, he and his wife Susan sold their home, donating most of their belongings to Jewish Family and Children’s Services. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment very close to their son Sam. In the year after his diagnosis, Jeremy walked Sam and his sister Rachel through all of his files. He had a living will, an advanced care directive, and had taken care of all of his arrangements before he began to
deteriorate. He spoke honestly and openly with his family, even through his tears. Sam told me that one of the best and worst days was when he and his mother went to the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma to pick out graves for them. When I asked why it was a best moment, Sam told me because he was so relieved that he had the time to have the hard conversations with his parents, while they were still alive. He really said goodbye to his Dad, heard his stories, laughed and cried together. Those conversations were the key to his own ability to truly mourn and to engage in the tradition of shiva.

Jeremy told Sam to serve his mother’s chopped liver at the shiva and Sam showed me the recipe in his grandmother’s handwriting. At Jeremy and Susan’s apartment, people shared stories and laughed and remembered Jeremy with love. The members of the synagogue, who had served Susan and Jeremy meals during the months leading up to his death, arrived with copious amounts of food. We listened to his favorite music, his granddaughter played his piano and we all ate chopped liver.

What is the difference between these two families? One had been given the gift of a peaceful ending. This is the gift of Judaism’s wisdom, to comfort, carry and bring them from death back to life. One had stories and joyful memories and a house in order. One had pain and anguish and no real way to come to any kind of closure in the end. Shiva works. Stop shaving, wear a black ribbon over your heart, show everyone your pictures, share your memories, take a break from life and live in death for seven days and then, slowly make your way back to life. Don’t deny your experience of grief, of loss. Shiva can bring you back to life. It can bring you closer to home and closer to your Judaism.

Just as you are courageous and show up here each year to confront the most awesome and, in many ways, most terrifying day of the Jewish year, be audacious in what you say, what you ask, and how you prepare yourself and others for your own death. The mitzvot that temper the severe decree take courage. Yom Kippur is ultimately telling us that the way we live, is the way we will die. The way that we do our Teshuvah and Tefillah and Tzedakah is the way that we will live on in the hearts and minds and lives of those whom we love. They really do take us with them. On this Yom Kippur I am asking you to do something:

Start the conversation with your parents or your children. Make time to talk face to face about one of the most difficult subjects about life. I have found that many parents don’t talk to their children about their own death, not because they don’t want to, but because they think that their children don’t want to have that conversation. Your parents will thank you, and your children will, too. No one wants to say goodbye to their parents and no one wants to leave this earth, but, just the same, we all do. It’s better to have your conversations while you and they are still here. Don’t let anything go unsaid. There is someone in your life today with whom you need to talk, but you haven’t initiated or finished the conversation. If this is your last Yom Kippur, imagine what you need to say to that person that you won’t be able to say after you are gone. Say it this year. Say it today. Call them, visit them, talk to them. Do your Teshuvah, as Rabbi Eliezar taught, the day before you die.

Let go and get rid of your stuff. I mean it. Go through your clothes, your jewelry, your attic, your boxes and your garage. Your children and our environment will thank you later.
Write a Living Will, an Advanced Care Directive, Power of Attorney. Write an Ethical Will and choose to become an Organ Donor.

Be clear with what you want to have happen to you. Most people I know that are under 50 and that have all of this in order have gone through some sort of health crisis, a heart attack, a cancer diagnosis or have suffered a loss earlier in life that made these decisions seem much more imminent.

Finally, think about where you are sitting right now. Look at this magnificent sanctuary, look down, at your seats. Think about the Jews who created this community 161 years ago. Think about those who labored to build this synagogue. I know they were thinking of you. It is their legacy to us. Now, remember who was here last year and is no longer with you. And think about who will be sitting in these seats when you are no longer here. Think about your spouse, siblings, children and grandchildren. Who will get them through shiva and back to life. Look around you. Really, take a look. The people here will help carry your legacy, too.

I know that this is a lot to ask, but it is Yom Kippur. I have posted resources on the Emanu-El Website including Living and Ethical wills, Power of Attorney and Advanced Care Directives that will help you begin the conversation and help to get your house in order. They are in the Sermons section of the site.

Some people write their own obituaries. I know a few who have written theirs several times. Think about it. Wouldn’t you want the way that you perceive your life to be the way that those around you perceived you and then your legacy? Now, some people do take this idea of being in control over their shiva or their obituary a little too seriously. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the story of the man on his death bed who is roused from his slumber by the wonderful aroma of his most favorite food in the world-his wife’s chocolate chip cookies. He pulls himself out of bed and very slowly makes his way down the hallway to the kitchen. There, he sees his wife and trays and trays of warm, delicious chocolate chip cookies. He reaches behind her to pick up a cookie and she turns around. She smacks him on the back of the hand with a spatula and says: “Don’t you dare, those are for the shiva.”

The author, Mitch Albom, writes in his book Have a Little Faith: “A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply, `He sleeps in a storm.’ The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man. Several week pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley. Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins. He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry. And then he understands. `He sleeps in a storm.’ My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our beliefs, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of `I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm. And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.”

Don’t worry. This is only a dress rehearsal for death. Or, this may really be your last Yom Kippur. Get your house in order. You aren’t taking anything with you.
But, they are taking you with them. Ken Yehi Ratzon-May this be G-d’s will.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz’e Resources and Suggestions for planning for End of Life Issues:

1. The Union of Reform Judaism’s resources on aging and end of life:
2. The Five Wishes is a resource for those who are planning ahead and includes books and guides to planning for illness and end of life issues:
3. Home of Peace in Colma is Congregation Emanu-El’s own historic cemetery:
4. This site gives resources to Interfaith Families who are in need of support around death and mourning: nterfaith_Families.shtml
5. Rabbi Jack Reimer gives the History and Practice of Writing Ethical Wills:

From A Mother To Her Girls

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This day of Yom Kippur is intended to help us grow as human beings, created in God’s image. We do this by introspection, evaluating how true we have been to the values instilled within us, and where we fall short, make amends. If we are honest, we will admit to those areas of our behavior that have been sinful, commit to remedy them and seek forgiveness. If we are observing this day with depth and integrity, we confront the quality of how we live our lives with the backdrop of our own mortality.

The primary other time when this kind of soul searching occurs is when we are facing our own deaths or that of loved ones. The following poem, written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar, whose thoughts informed my Yom Kippur evening sermon, entitled “From A Mother To Her Girls,” speaks to this moment. It is written from a daughter’s perspective and the connection between parent and child seems to have been strong and positive. I believe it addresses many of our losses. You will not relate to all of what she writes, but perhaps some of it. She begins:

“The morning you wake to bury me

you’ll wonder what to wear.

The sun may be shining, or maybe it will rain;

it may be winter. Or not.

You’ll say to yourself, “black, aren’t you supposed to

wear black?” Then you will remember all the times we went

together to buy clothes: the prom, homecoming,

just another pair of jeans,

another sweater, another pair of shoes. I called you my Barbie dolls.

You will remember how I loved to dress you.

How beautiful you were in my eyes.


When we lose loved ones, especially when we have experienced the gift of years with them, we immediately recall time shared. While often they will be major events- weddings, birthdays, B’nai Mitzvah, or anniversaries, but frequently they will be the more mundane moments- time spent shopping, enjoying a meal, holiday observance, a story that was repeated over and over, a childhood experience, a trip that was shared. Then after specific recollections will hopefully arrive a sense of calm: the knowledge that there was a special relationship, one that will be missed, but whose memory provides a warmth and glow. Rabbi Kedar continues:

The morning you wake to bury me

you will look in the mirror in disbelief.

You’ll reach for some makeup. Or not. And you won’t believe that

this is the morning you will bury your mother.

But it is. And as you gaze into that mirror, you will shed a tear. Or not. But look. Look carefully, for hiding in your expression, you will find mine.

You will see me in your eyes, in the way you laugh.

You will feel me when you think of God,

and of love and struggle.

Look into the mirror and you will see me in a look, or in

the way you hold your mouth or stand, a little bent, or maybe straight.

But you will see me.


When loved ones die, we are disoriented. The simplest task is difficult to accomplish. Tears flow one moment, while at other times we feel like we want to cry, but the tears do not come. They are gone and our world is just not the same.

At the same time our loved ones live on in us. When it comes to parents and siblings, there is often physical continuity. We look like them, walk and talk like them. If you want to see what I will look like when I am in my 90’s (I should be so fortunate to reach that age in health), just look on the pulpit. But beyond physical links, we all carry aspects of dear ones who are gone within us, whether we realize or not. It can be in an expression, facial or verbal. It can be in situations, where we have learned from the best how to respond. When relationships are solid and healthy, we can even grow from our losses. Rabbi Kedar teaches:

So let me tell you, one last time, before you dress,

what to wear. Put on any old thing. Black or red, skirt or pants.

Despite what I told you all these years, it doesn’t really matter.

Because as I told you all these years, you are beautiful the way you are.

Dress yourself in honor and dignity.

Dress yourself in confidence and self-love.

Wear a sense of obligation to do for this world,

for you are one of the lucky ones and there is so much to do, to fix.

Take care of each other,

Take care of your heart, of your soul.

Talk to God.

Wear humility and compassion.


We honor our loved ones most by leading our lives fully. There is a time to mourn and a time to rise up from mourning. Loss is something that each of us incorporates and even compartmentalizes in our lives. It has its place, but cannot dominate our being, for that would not be a way to honor loved ones.

Deeds of goodness are the more lasting tribute.  They were not saints. They had strengths and weaknesses, moments when they were endearing and others that simply had to be endured. Still we take the positive lessons they taught by word and deed and incorporate them in our lives. The fact that we are here and they are not is a gift to be appreciated and out of tribute we can make a difference.

Lastly we honor them by preserving that which was most precious- families, friendships and your relationship with God. Then Rabbi Kedar concludes:

When you wake to bury me,

put on a strong sense of self, courage and understanding.

I am sorry. Forgive me. I am sorry.

Stand at my grave clothed in a gown of forgiveness,

dressed like an angel would be, showing compassion

and unconditional love.

For at that very moment, all that will be left of me to give is love.



The major theme of this day is forgiveness, always a challenge. When death comes, forgiveness is more possible than ever. Perhaps we were hurt by them. We need no longer carry that baggage. What would be the purpose other than to continue as victim? Put it down and grant forgiveness. Reciprocally, we can ask forgiveness for what we have done wrong with the knowledge that it can never happen again.

What does endure is love. Even when they are gone, the love we have and the love they gave continues to be a source of positive spiritual energy within us.

On this Yom Kippur afternoon, may the lessons of this day and those of memory,  bring us comfort and strengthen us for our New Year.


Tim Russert Remembered – Father’s Day

June 13, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Early this afternoon many of you probably heard that NBC journalist Tim Russert

died of a heart attack in Washington at the age of 58. I did not know him personally, but like many, I felt as if I did. He was in my home regularly. I appreciated his journalistic skill and seeming integrity. He had a direct style of questioning, which was respectful, but also very effective. Many of us looked forward to his analysis of the presidential campaign. From what I have now heard, I gather that not only was he an outstanding journalist, but a fine human being. He is certainly someone who will be sorely missed.

I’m not sure why I feel his death so deeply as I do. Perhaps it is his age, so close to my own or more likely due to the losses in our own family in recent days. I found myself very teary as his colleagues paid tribute to him on the nightly news. Then, I remembered that in August of 2006, I gave a sermon based upon a book he wrote and thought that instead of what I had originally prepared for this evening, I would reprise my earlier work. The topic was fathers, an appropriate subject this weekend. So, it is both in memory of Tim Russert, and also in honor of all the Fathers.

In the spring of 2004, Tim Russert, NBC journalist, best known for his interviews on “Meet the Press”, wrote a book entitled, “Big Russ and Me.” It details his relationship with his father, a sanitation worker from Buffalo, New York. As a result of that book, he received hundreds of letters from men and women telling their stories. And so he collected them into a second volume: “Wisdom of Our Fathers- Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.” As parents we communicate what is important to our children knowingly and unknowingly, through our words and our deeds. I will share a few as these anecdotes that speak to us all and go beyond the parent/child relationship.

The first involves a young man, who unfortunately received a facial scar as the victim of a violent crime. He confided to his therapist that every time he shaved and saw that scar, it triggered painful memories. The therapist asked him to change his frame of reference and asked him if he ever watched his father shave. The young man shared how as a child he would watch his Dad and occasionally his Dad would put shaving cream on his face and “shave” him. The counselor urged him to bring up that memory each time he shaved instead of how he was scarred, to which the young man wrote: “Precious memories are made in an instant and last forever. I am so thankful that my Dad had the patience back then to let me ‘shave’.” My comment is simple enough. We never know when we make a memory. The most insignificant act can make a difference.

A second story teaches us that the behavior we model can teach more than many words. In 1990 a father and young son, both of whom were football fanatics had four tickets for the NFC Playoff Game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. They went to the game planning to sell the extra two. Arriving early, they enjoyed a tailgating experience with at least 25 people trying to buy the tickets, but his father did not sell them. The boy figured his father was holding out for a higher price closer to game time. As they approached the gate to enter, he observed his father scanning the crowd of would-be buyers. To his amazement he witnessed his father approach another obvious father with his young son and sold those tickets at face value. Years later the son writes: “I did learn something that day- something about having principles and doing what is right. I know today that my father got more enjoyment out of seeing that father and son watch the game right next to us than if he had sold each ticket for a small fortune. In doing so, he taught me a lesson I will never forget.” Indeed there are some moments that are more precious than thousands of dollars.

Of course parenting involves the mindset that there are teachable moments upon which we must seize. One Sunday morning a father and son were walking together in New York City, when they passed in front of Riverside Funeral Home, one of the major Jewish funeral homes in the City. They stopped for a moment, interrupted what they had been talking about and the father asked his son what time it was and what did he see? “It’s 10:30 and I see lots of people walking into the building.” They continued their conversation, but the boy realized they had not moved.  A little later, his father again asked the same questions. “What time is it and what do you see?” He responded, “10:50 and I see people leaving the building.”

The boy was confused as his father explained, when someone dies, there is a funeral which last 20 minutes, to which the boy asked, “Why are you telling me this, I am only 11?” The father responded, “Because I hope you will live a long and productive life, that you will be aware of your surroundings, that you will stay out of trouble, and that you will be thoughtful and cautious. And above all, that you will always know in the back of your mind that someday your entire life will be summed up in twenty minutes.” We each need a measure of humility as we approach life. We are all part of a much bigger picture and contribute our part to the world.

We can choose how to approach life and its challenges. The final story is illustrative of this point. An 85 year old man was stricken with cancer. He instructed his doctors that he wanted to do all that was possible to fight the disease. One day while sitting at the hospital with his daughter waiting for some blood work, he turned to her and said: “You know, I’ve had a very good life. True I was in a concentration camp for five years and lost my first wife and child, but all in all, I’ve had a very happy life.” To which his daughter wrote: “What could I say? He did have a happy life, because he believed he did. I put my hand on his and we waited quietly together.”

It was the Jewish psychologist, Viktor Frankel, a survivor himself, who wrote about how it is up to us to deal with adversity. Horrible moments may come into our lives, but it is our choice as to how we will deal with them. Certainly that is a precious insight for us all.

One last word… In the introduction to his book, Tim Russert addresses his own son, who is heading off to college for the first time and as we now have learned graduated from Boston College this past month. His parting words to him as he went off to college were. “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.” Tim Russert did just that. That too is part of his legacy to us on this Father’s Day weekend.


Coping With Loss: Models To Consider


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            Let me begin this afternoon with a word of thanks. I have had the mitzvah opportunity of standing with many of you during your times of loss. This past year was our time to mourn, first with the death of my father, Edwin Loewy and then a few weeks later, my father-in-law, Justin Rosenfeld. My family and I most sincerely appreciated the outpouring of support, expressions of condolence and donations of caring.

On one occasion I was sitting with a congregant, who while dealing with her sorrow, was also consoling me. I explained to her that we all are served the same plate. It is just a matter of timing when it comes to us. This year was our time. The great challenge is how to cope. There are many approaches and sources from which we can learn.

On Rosh Hashanah morning I shared insights to be gleaned from the life of Abraham Lincoln by way of Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals.” As she describes the life of Lincoln, along with the rivals, who would one day become part of his leadership team, there is a subtext of death and how it impacted upon each of the men. We can learn from them as we develop our own coping skills.

Salmon Chase of Ohio was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, a brilliant financier who enabled Lincoln to fund the Civil War. We are familiar with his name, as in Chase Manhattan Bank. His father died when he was 9 years old and he went to live with a domineering uncle. There was always gloom in his life. It is reported that he simply did not know how to have fun. His father had died of a stroke following major financial reversals, so that fear of failure plagued Chase throughout his life.

Death continued to stalk Chase in adulthood. Between the ages of 25-44 he buried three wives. Granted, death in childbirth and other diseases was not unusual in the 19th century, it was still a lot for one man to handle. He accepted death as a burden, which weighed him down. An intense work ethic and a fixation on raising his daughter as a perfect woman and proper partner became his focus. He once said, “Death has pursued me incessantly ever since I was twenty-five … Sometimes I feel as if I could give up- as if I MUST give up. And then after all I rise & press on.” (p. 36) Never fully satisfied with his own accomplishments, the main solace he found was belief in a world to come for his loved ones. He coped by immersing himself in work and as a result in many ways was a bitter man. Wallowing in pain is not a foundation for healthy living.

Edward Bates of Missouri was Lincoln’s Attorney General. Like Chase, his father died when he was 11 years old and like Chase a belief in an afterlife brought him comfort. His father’s death impacted upon him as well, but not in the burdensome way of Chase. Rather, Bates was committed to provide and protect his family in ways that his father never could. Not having had a stable home as a youth, Bates delighted in his marriage to his wife Julia and was pleased to consider himself “a very domestic, home man.” While he led an active public career, home and family eclipsed politics as the main pleasure of his life. (p. 63) Bates coped with his early loss by creating the kind of life he would have liked as a child and by all accounts was highly successful.

Edwin Stanton was Lincoln’s Secretary of War. While he did not lose a parent at an early age, first his daughter died and then his wife, at the age of 29. His younger brother also met a tragic end. Dealing with his losses he withdrew from his world for months. Then somewhat like Chase, Stanton immersed himself in his work. Many claimed that the multiple deaths turned him from outgoing to gloomy. As a litigator he became very aggressive in court, intimidating witnesses unnecessarily and antagonizing fellow lawyers, as he did Lincoln. His primary pleasure came from his growing reputation and amassing of wealth. (p. 178) None of this would I describe as healthy coping skills.

However, he remained warm and tender towards his family and especially his son, who was 2 years old when his mother died. Realizing that the boy would have no real memories of his mother, Stanton wrote a letter of over 100 pages telling the boy about his mother, the kind of woman she was, details of the love that he had with her and more. Preserving memory is indeed a positive way to cope with loss.

And then there was Abraham Lincoln. His mother, Nancy Hanks, died when he was 9 years old. His older sister Sarah helped to raise him, but sadly, she too died at a young age. Then the love of his life, Ann Rutledge, died at the tender age of 22. Upon her death he fell into a deep depression. Unlike Chase and Stanton, Lincoln did not believe in a world to come. In truth he was not necessarily very religious at all. As a young man he confided to a neighbor, “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us.” There are those who suggest that all this loss at a young age provided Lincoln with strength and a deep understanding of human frailty.

Then came his years as President. The catastrophic loss of life during the Civil War weighed heavily upon him. He became a bit more philosophical as he came to embrace the idea that we live on through what we have done. As President, he often penned notes to families upon the death of a soldier. In one such message of condolence to a young girl he wrote, “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. And yet this is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

Indeed Lincoln had vast experience on the topic, losing his mother, sister and beloved at a young age. And like many others of his era, two of his children died as well. First was his son Eddie, who died of tuberculosis in 1850. At the time, his wife, Mary, was inconsolable, until she embraced a belief in an afterlife, but Abraham simply maintained a stoic attitude. He did find a measure of consolation in the belief that some part of us remains alive in the memory of others.

Their son Willie was born shortly thereafter. He was inquisitive and playful as he grew into adolescence. The White House became a big playground for him, until Typhoid fever snuffed out his life. Again Mary sunk into a deep depression, while Abraham deeply grieved, held onto the mementoes of the young boy’s life, believing deeply that the dead live on through memory. He would face difficult hours of loss and found comfort in looking at a picture Willie had painted along with a scrapbook he had maintained. Though surrounded by the death of war, the loss of his son caused him to relate to others during their times of loss in a more profound way. In that same letter I mentioned earlier, he wrote, “In time the memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

Ironically the day before his assassination Lincoln spoke of future life. Perhaps like many who begin to face their own mortality, the hope for a world to come came into his mind.

Friends, there is no one model guaranteed to help us cope with our losses. Each situation and individual is unique. No one philosophy will ensure solace. Looking at the exampless I have presented this afternoon we can learn positively and negatively from each. Certainly when death comes we are entitled to be sad, lost, even inconsolable. Hopefully that phase will pass with time. For some a belief in the afterlife provides great comfort. Please know that this path is open to us as Jews. While the rational founders of Reform Judaism tended to minimize the emphasis on concepts of afterlife, the belief in a world to come, open to the righteous of all people, is a strong part of Jewish tradition. I cannot tell you what that world is like or definitively that it even exists, but if that is a belief that provides strength and hope, I am not about to deny or demean that possibility.

Our friend Lincoln coped with his losses with what he knew and what we can confirm. Loved ones do live on in our memories and the impact of their lives resonates in the world in which they once lived.

As for me, I embrace all of the above. Though in my early years I rarely thought in terms of a world to come, I am now comfortably open to that possibility. I do not depend upon it, nor will I devote my life to reaching that end. Still, the traditional Jewish belief that our loved ones live on in ways beyond our knowledge provides a measure of solace and the hope of a future time of reconnection. And like Lincoln the gift of memory and the knowledge of lives well lived provides me with comfort, even as I continue to mourn.

At this hour of Yizkor, a time of sacred memory, may we learn from those who have gone before us as we hallow the lives of our loved ones.



This sermon is inspired by the speech of Doris Kearns Goodwin at the 2007 CCAR National Convention, based upon her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.